Left of Bang: What athletes can learn from Military transition

Military transition

Left of Bang: What athletes can learn from Military transition

Since we started producing content for The Final Whistle, we have had a number of ex-service people reach out, often drawing parallels between the challenges presented to athletes and the military, both during their careers and in transition.

Both have spent years being dedicated and disciplined towards a series of goals in a static rhythm of train-perform-recover, train-perform-recover, often played out in the public eye, albeit at different levels of attention. While not always readily understood or accepted, these experiences in the military and sport are highly sought-after qualities in the arenas of business or employment.

Between the two, it is no accident that a lot of sports teams employ military leaders to do workshops and simulations; “going to war with another on the weekend” seems to be a constant theme in the social-media-friendly videos that get captured for fans hungry for some behind-the-scenes action.

So we decided to put a series of questions to a panel of three gentlemen who have diverse backgrounds in the military and sport and see just how similar elite sport and life in the military indeed are.

The Panel

Ricky Dumigan is a High-Performance Coach and Mental & Physical Toughness practitioner who spent 17 years in the military (Navy and Army), mainly as a physical training and self-defence instructor. He has worked for the Brumbies and Rebels in Coach education and Strength & Conditioning roles respectively and also managed Rehabilitation for the Mates4Mates charity.

Rob Cromey-Hawke spent 12 years in the British Army mostly in the Corps of Royal Engineers. He was seriously injured in Afghanistan in 2012, which resulted in a Traumatic Brain Injury, spinal cord injury and hearing loss. But this hasn’t stopped Rob in accumulating 4 gold medals in the Invictus Games, completing multiple ironman triathlons, and leading the disabled team in the world’s toughest triathlon, the Enduroman Arch2Arc triathlon challenge. He is building a coaching business and continues to challenge himself physically by hoping to be selected for the Help for Heroes Race Across America (RAAM) cycling team, which is a group of wounded British military veterans attempting to complete RAAM (3089 miles non-stop) in under 7 days in June 2017.

Eric Yarger is a former Special Operations Marine (Raider) in the United States Marine Corps. He now works in the professional development space where he brings the lessons learned from his 12-year military career to the classroom and the speaking circuit, covering topics such as leadership, creating high performing cultures, high-stakes negotiations and resilience. Check out his Ted Talk, entitled, “My Path to Acceptance.

Military transition
Ricky Dumigan
Military transition
Rob Cromey-Hawke
Military transition
Eric Yarger

At what point in your military career did you say, enough is enough? Was it a single event or a build-up of events?

RD: It was a natural transition for me as I took my long service leave and found out through my network that there was this gig at the Brumbies. It happened quite quickly, so I started mapping it out once I got the job and then made plans off the back of that.

RCH: Initially, it was the appeal of a life outside of the military, mainly due to financial reasons; so a build-up of events. However, I chose to extend my contract before I completed my transition process but then became wounded and it became a forced transition. The extent of my injuries weren’t initially evident, but once I was back home, my wife realised that there was something wrong with me and further testing revealed I had a Traumatic Brain Injury, spinal cord injury and hearing loss. This impacted the choices I could now make, narrowing my options, but I knew I could no longer serve in the military.

EY: Oh yeah, unfortunately, that point came a year after I’d re-enlisted so I had 3 more years on contract and had to just keep my mouth shut and plan my ‘getting out’ and my transition. It was definitely a build-up of events, but then there was one single event that kicked it over the edge. So it was a culmination of my family growing and that it wasn’t good for family life, and also a feeling that I’d achieved everything I wanted to achieve in the military. I did question whether I was making the right decision, but then there was one fateful event with one of my leaders and that reinforced my decision.

At any stage of your military career, did you have any ideas about what you wanted to do if you'd left, and if so, had you mapped out a plan?

RD: Not really, but I’ll relate an athlete story instead. I took a number of guys from Men of League to Kokoda 12 months ago. They’d been playing rugby league all of their lives and become quite institutionalised and were not prepped to go into the corporate world and didn’t understand what skill sets are transferable. With athletes nearing their transition, if they are signing a 1-year contract, there is time in that off-season to start implementing some of those transition strategies.

RCH: I had a carefully thought-out plan the first time around but clearly didn’t go through with it. The advantage is that if you choose to leave, you need to give minimum 12 months’ notice, so you can kick-start the transition process then. There were some good opportunities that presented themselves in the commercial diving industry, so I actually started to go through the regular military transition programme, but then chose to stay in before completing the transition due to personal circumstances. Also, a lot of my peers were leaving at the same time and I thought if they’re all going, then my chances of promotion increase.

EY: Before I got out, I thought I had a good plan. Afterwards, I realised that it was a sh*t plan. Had I stayed in the United States, where there is a very large defence industry ready to hire, I would have been fine. But moving to Australia, most of the stuff I did didn’t have relevance or didn’t translate given its speciality, and me not being a citizen was a massive limiter. Also, we’re in a comfortable setting where if you show up, perform and do good, you’ll be good. However, no-one ever tells us or elite athletes that we’re not ready and that we suck. You just get the gold watch and the pat on the back for getting out. Then you’re out there up against people with years of business experience and all you can say to yourself is, “I did amazing things on the battlefield or the sports pitch, give me a crack.” But then they’re not going to risk their business on someone who was just good at yelling at someone!

Do service men and women talk to one another about leaving?

RD: I don’t think Defence does it well enough, although there is more probably done these days. But once you’re out, you’re out and you become a statistic pretty quickly.

RCH: There’s a lot of talking amongst peers but they can’t provide much support as while you’re all still serving, no-one has actually gone through a transition, so it comes down to separating what’s truth, someone else’s personal experience, fiction, ideology. There are a number of great networking organisations that exist, especially in the UK such as Help for Heroes, to support ex-military service men; it is worth engaging with them before finishing to understand if leaving is the right decision for you at that time.

EY: Not really. I still had a job to do so most of my interactions were keeping in line with that. We went to a 1-week transition seminar, but it’s addressed to everyone and not to individual skills. Likewise, the transition for a high-profile athlete will be very different for a guy who was on a 4-week contract but couldn’t make it.

Military transition
Rob Cromey-Hawke and his daughter Pippa meet Prince Harry during the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida

Who owns the duty of care to transition service men and women out of the military?

RD: It’s really a little bit of all parties concerned. I don’t think the military does it well in terms of delivering the message, and the government doesn’t understand the transition. It should almost be mandatory for people to do a transition seminar.

RCH: Ultimately, it’s the individual, because it’s their life and they need to own it. The earlier you start to prepare for it, the better. I’d heard from one of my sergeant-majors that he’d been told that the military is one long resettlement period and therefore the sooner you start to prepare for it and embrace it, the better prepared you’ll be when it does come. You do know that it is a finite career.

EY: It’s a shared responsibility between all involved. The leaders of the organisations have a duty of care to put a framework in place, but the individual has to realise that there is a life after the military and they can’t just say, “I was awesome in the military, so hire me.” The only place my war stories counted was in the bar.

Did you get any assistance from the military itself?

RD: No, I didn’t feel I got much at all. One of the things we found is that with some young guys being deployed and then returning, they didn’t have any goals or things to reach towards. Deployment is the ultimate test of your skills and objectives, but it’s a bit like going to rugby training on Tuesdays and Thursdays but never playing a game on the weekend. One of the things we did at Mates4Mates was to implement some adventure such as the Kokoda trek.

RCH: If you are coming to the end of your contract, during the last two years of service you are entitled to all of the transition support and training opportunities that are available. For me personally, I did make full use of the transition package but time was the restrictor and therefore, to achieve my plan, my transition was still happening 12 months after I had left.

EY: There was an organisation called SOF that was the best I’d seen, but it was only available on the west coast of the USA so I couldn’t join them. The problem is that people don’t want to do anything until it becomes an issue. To put it in tactical terms, it’s what we call ‘Left of Bang’. Essentially ‘bang’ is the crisis and if you are left of it, you’re preventing the crisis ever happening. So if you brought in professional development alongside them hitting the gym, they can walk out with certifications and skills like communicating, interviewing, presenting, leadership. That way, you’re really building a bridge between the organisation and the community. But the military doesn’t want to see a tragedy case as it’s not good PR.

Describe the emotions you had on your last mission or your last day.

RD: I transferred to the reserves, so there was probably a period where I was leaving but not going permanently. Once I was in my job, the opportunity to go back never eventuated, so there was some part of me that didn’t get closure. I had a farewell from my unit. I do miss the camaraderie of being around my team.

RCH: I was still undergoing the rehabilitation when I went through to my employment medical grading board. I prepared for that and compared my medical notes to the retention criteria in the policies and realised quickly that I was below the retention level and I wasn’t going to be able to stay in the military. So I went to that meeting with quite a clear view that I was going to be medically retired, and it was just a matter of how long they were giving me until I stopped getting paid. The emotions and need for acceptance came later. I miss the military life, but now I am settled, I would not change a thing – my new life has as many highs and I am loving it!

EY: It was an extreme high. I was so ready to get out. You will go through a range of emotions, the biggest one is trying to figure out who you are.

Military transition
England's Rugby team undertook military training with the Royal Marines in 1999. Photo courtesy of Daily Mail

What skills that you acquired in the military set you apart from your non-military peers?

RD: Trust. I think in some of the corporate spaces I’ve worked in, there is that element of trust that isn’t there. I’m not sure that in corporates the business goal is shared and that everyone has enough buy-in to commit to the goal. Another thing is commander’s intent – when I was in the military, I knew what my boss and my boss’s boss wanted and so I was empowered to make decisions.

RCH: The key transferable skills come down to the core values of that individual, which we assume everyone to have. Things such as time-keeping, discipline, honesty, integrity, dressing correctly, presenting yourself properly. Other skills that will stand you in good stead in your next life/career are great communication and presentation skills, strategic planning and understanding, and the ability to always deliver when it is most needed.

EY: There are a lot of non-tangible skills we have in the elite military level that are similar to athletes; the trouble is translating them into a corporate career. Things like being driven, being competitive and wanting to be successful and be the best.

Based on your military transition experience, what advice do you have for athletes?

RD: Surround yourself with good people – get a mentor. Also, have a goal – is it what you really want to do and is there a place for it in the market? And they definitely need a physical challenge to keep them motivated, particularly in the 12 months after leaving the sporting environment.

RCH: You will potentially have a lot of significant life changes – making a career change, finding somewhere to live, children moving schools – in a very short timeframe. As such, when you first transition, you can fall into what you need to do, not what you want to do or dream of doing, and so you can undersell yourself. Be confident in your worth, prepare for your new decisions as you always have for your events, and enjoy the rollercoaster!

EY: Build your network outside of your sport right from the beginning, start creating your own brand and even make your own business cards. Build relationships because when you get out, the thing that is going to bridge the gap, is your network. You have a unique story and people will want to talk to you. Let them ask all the questions about your sport if it means building the relationship with them. Follow up, have coffees, do things for them and their families.

Rob Flude

Rob is the Head of Digital & Communications for The Final Whistle. Born and bred in Cape Town, he has called London and Melbourne home and also travelled to 42 countries. He has a background in IT Projects and in Sports Media.
Interests: self-improvement, sport, health & well-being, eCommerce, travelling, reading, craft beer, social enterprises, writing, human behaviour.
First article: February 2016

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